On Travel With Kids

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How to do it without losing your mind?

This post has been ruminating for a while. We’ve done a LOT of amazing travels with the kids. And we’ve enjoyed the majority of it. But I should be transparent on how some of our travel days go. On all our trips we have  many highs and many lows when it comes to family “moments”. The lows are mostly due to long days, and the ever present conflict of adults wanting to see things that kids are less interested in. Or, the food being “different”. Or, the walk too long. Or, there not being any downtime. And, while I try to be patient, I sometimes lose my cool. The truth is, at ages 9 and nearly 11, they only know what they, themselves, have experienced. Me telling them how lucky they are to do all the things they’re doing only goes so far. It’ll be many years before they (hopefully) look back and say, “wow, that was a cool thing my parents did!” or “Hey- we have a family photo in this same location!”. I try not to let these heated moments take over the memories of our trips. And the more I look back at what we’ve done so far, I see mostly the good moments…ones I also hope the boys are keeping with them. But I’ll tell ya…my cousin and some random Munich bystanders witnessed me blowing my top at my grumpy, seemingly ungrateful and snarky 10-year old on our way to dinner one night. Luckily I have no photos of said incident. So…moving right along.

Not from Munich, but grumpy kids nonetheless

We’ve learned some things along the way, especially over this last year. Here are some tricks that have helped get us through traveling with kids this age. We can’t always do all these things, but when we can do some, it leads to more happiness overall.

Find your rhythm. For us, in general, it is something like: early breakfast,  then tour (or long hike, or museum, etc.), midday/early afternoon lunch, ideally at spot near another area we want to see, chill time back at the hotel, then dinner out with a chance of brief site-seeing before or after of something nearby, then normal (or close to normal) bedtime. Sometimes this schedule is impossible. If your family members are not early risers, then this routine might not work very well. On the rare day my children sleep in late (and we don’t have somewhere to be), then we readjust. If you’re meeting people whose schedules are different, if only afternoon tours are available, or if your days are too limited and you need to utilize full days for activities and site-seeing, then this has to be tweaked or thrown out the window altogether. Most of our family arguments are around the boys feeling like they didn’t get their “down time”. Back in their younger days this was a good ole fashioned nap. These days, “downtime” is generally a couple of hours of iPad games.

Small bites. Don’t treat the city as a “we’ll never see it again so we have to do it all” destination. I know this is hard. But there are few cities where you can see and do it all- even the top hits, unless you’re staying for weeks. So, when traveling with just our family we usually picked a couple of landmarks/museums/tours we wanted and made sure to hit them. When meeting up with friends or family on our travels, we made seeing those people the priority of the trip, making the site-seeing activities less important and scaling those things down in order to spend real time with the people. It may be true that you never get there again, but cramming it all in and exhausting yourself (and your kids) to do every single activity is a good recipe for a big fight.

Treats. Candy and ice cream get you a long way. We bribed our kids with gelato every single day in Rome, sometimes twice a day, because we had too few days to be able to fit in those afternoon breaks. And Rome requires a lot of walking. We bring Haribo on days when we know we have longer walks or for those moments when everyone is starting to feel grumpy.

Communicate. Try to share the plan for the day with everyone. My kids would only half hear it. But sometimes they just needed to know what was expected, or that they would have time to chill in the afternoon, to make the day go well. 

Playgrounds and parks are your friend. At least they are with my boys currently. And in Europe they are fairly easy to find. In the Netherlands and Germany they almost always have a cafe (coffee! wine!) nearby as well. If you aren’t meeting someone in the city who can recommend playgrounds/parks, I’d ask your hotel concierge or Airbnb host. They are usually good for at least one recommendation. I imagine my almost 11 year old is nearing the end of wanting to play on a playground, but they show no signs of it yet. And while playgrounds get boring for adults after a while, we’ve found it to be a good compromise with our kids to say “okay you get this time to do what you want, then we are going to do something mom/dad want”. This “sharing ownership” of the day’s activity decisions helped keep some of the complaining down. I don’t know what we’re going to do when they reach the point that they don’t want to run and play on a playground, but also still don’t want to walk around a city. If you have ideas, send them to me.

Make Space. If your budget allows for it and your kids are old enough, I recommend getting 2 rooms (one for adults and one for kids, ideally connected when feasible) so that everyone can have some time in their own space. It is especially handy in Europe that a lot of rooms come with two twin beds, and one came almost as our own little apartment in Germany, so our boys even had their own separate bedrooms. 

Always pack:

The Screens. On our trips we allow the boys some iPad time. They have to read a certain amount of time first and the iPad time is regulated by the screen time app to shut off after the allotted time, so there’s no real fight about the time when it is over. They also can’t start the day with iPads – it is usually only an afternoon treat. And I’ll admit, it can be super annoying when you’ve just seen something incredible and 80 seconds later they ask when can we get back to the hotel so they can game. BUT, in their defense (and I have to regularly remind myself of this), they have seen what you went to see. They maybe find it about half as cool because they are young and don’t have the perspective of long life to know that only a fraction of people get to see this particular thing. When we ask them about our trips, they do actually remember some of those things…they don’t remember the iPad time.  

Books. Ours have to read every day. They have a minimum before they start their iPad time. Often on long travel days the iPad time runs out and they go back to their books, so we have gone through a LOT of books this year. Speaking of, I highly recommend Rick Riordan books if you’re planning to do anything in Greece or Rome because a lot of Mythology is explained in those in ways they remember, and it really helped connect them to those places when we visited.

Journals. This one is tricky but worth trying. The boys have journals where they write when asked. Pretty sure they never write in them otherwise. Usually, we’ll have them write about an interesting day of site seeing or things they loved about a trip. I’ll admit, though, we haven’t been as disciplined with this one as I’d like. Mainly because my youngest does NOT enjoy the task and, while we still have him do it, it is definitely a battle that we sometimes just choose to avoid. If you have really young kids, you could use stickers to allow them to just decorate some pages in these.

Deck of cards. Aside from war, the boys have also learned Blackjack, BS, and poker. It is an easy way to pass some time together on a train and doesn’t take up too much room. Also, when dinner takes forever, Uno cards can keep the gang pretty happy (see photo from Josh’s trip with the kids to Austria).

Water bottles. Many places in Europe have bottle filling stations and just having water on hand helps with long, hot days of touring. 

Bike tours. If you really want to see a big city, try a bike tour. Some have bikes for kids, and the one we did in Florence included an ice cream stop. They didn’t catch all the guide’s explanations, but they had fun on the bikes and we got to see/hear a lot about the city in a short amount of time.

Get help. If you are traveling with kids and/or grandparents, and you feel overwhelmed with how to make your tours cater to everyone’s needs, I recommend working with a travel agency. We’ve used Ciao Bambino several times in the past and they’re great at knowing how to appeal to everyone involved.

Final note, sometimes the travel gets hard. The kids are grumpy. You are grumpy. No one slept and everyone is hot and hungry. Or maybe you missed a train. Or your rental van breaks down on the Italian highway. When those moments happen, I try to calm myself and kids down and reframe it as “this will be a great story later”. It doesn’t always work in the moment, but it is most always true.

Good times? Well…at least a good story.

P.S. If you’ve made it this far and you’re thinking of traveling to Italy with kids, I wrote this blog post with some tips!

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